At a time when the superficial has become the norm, men and women of substance are like rays of sunlight streaming through dark grey clouds. Governments throughout Europe are allowed to plough on largely critically unchallenged with economic policies that exacerbate a situation they say they are trying to resolve, well-paid barristers use sarcasm as a legitimate form of defence in high-profile criminal cases, and the masses use the word ‘LOL’ like a full-stop, a disclaimer for any serious thought. Bruce Springsteen is so charismatic and talented he would stand out like a shining beacon in any age, but against the backdrop of fluff that passes for modern life, he is like a saviour that has risen from the streets, a leader and man of the people at the same time.
First and foremost he is a leader of the band, immersed in music and the tradition of rock’n’roll, the history of which will have his name writ large as one of its greatest players. His rich catalogue of work, forty years worth of aligning poetic words to harmonies so strong every riff has a chant in sold-out stadiums around the world, is his main legacy, but he is also a man of values and decency; he gives a voice to ordinary folk who are usually unheard, but whose stories are told with empathy and passion through his songs. And of course he is a great performer, showcasing his material with an amazing energy that inspires and entertains.
Coming on stage to start his set in the late Saturday evening sun at Hyde Park, he references his first gig in London (before the time of many of us there), blowing us all away immediately with a majestic Thunder Road to open, starting and finishing on harmonica, his vocal accompanied only by Roy Bittan on piano and eighty-odd-thousand of us singing along. Arguably the greatest song ever written, delivered beautifully, it instantly topped any live song performance out of thousands seen over the years for this writer at least.
It wasn’t the last time he’d moisten the eyes of many in the crowd. The subject of loss is prominent on this tour, the first since the death of Clarence Clemons and he paid tribute early on in My City of Ruins, one of a number of songs from the post 9/11 album of sorrow and hope, The Rising. Later came Empty Sky, Waitin’ on a Sunny Day and the title track itself, which went into Land of Hope and Dreams, a long-time live staple that featured on The Rising single as well as being recorded for his latest work, this year’s Wrecking Ball.
All the new material from Wrecking Ball fitted into the set seamlessly, having the feel and sound of songs that have been part of Springsteen live gigs for years, with Shackled and Drawn not just communicating the anger of injustice at capitalism but also having the musical influence of his Seeger Sessions. There was nothing from that album on Saturday, but Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday was marked with the wonderful The Ghost of Tom Joad.
For that, as with a number of songs of the new album, Bruce and the E Street Band were joined by Tom Morello. Earlier, in his own set, Morello, with slogans on his guitar Guthrie-style, spoke at speed in support of the protest movement, performing the Woody penned Ease My Revolutionary Mind before being joined on stage by striking Essex fire-fighters.
There are plenty of words of rage against the machine in Springsteen songs of course, often as he paints a picture of an everyman just looking for moments of pleasure and escape while trying to get by with the system’s cards stacked against them. A perfect example of that is The River, a stunning rendition of which suddenly captivated all, with the line about trouble finding work because of the economy receiving cheers, as a lyric from over 30 years ago has a new appreciation from the latest victims of a monetarist mess.
As well as his music, Springsteen’s personality put him on a different plane to other performers. The interactivity with his fans leads him to invite audience members on stage, take requests from signs and be lifted himself into a crowd, which he remains a master of working. He has us singing the choruses to Born in the USA and Glory Days despite those lines being the painful pay-off to the sad story he is telling; other artists play at festivals and sound cheesy when the say the name of the venue and town looking for a cheap cheer, but when Bruce says “London”, we know it is a personal touch; and when other bands individually name their band members it often sounds wanky, but with the E-Street Band it is a requisite for legendary musicians who combine to become even greater than the sum of their pretty impressive parts.
Even when The Boss joined John Foggerty at the end of his early-evening set, he magically reclaimed Rockin’ All Over The World back from Status Quo for Foggerty. Foggerty’s set itself was another based on old favourites, with his own Bad Moon Rising and Have You Ever Seen The Rain while also covering Pretty Woman. Foggerty then later joined Bruce and the E Street Band for Promised Land, one of only two songs from Darkness on The Edge of Town, after Badlands followed Thunder Road, when the rest of the band joined The Boss to kick their set off.
As well as Foggerty and Morello, The Boss was also joined by Paul McCartney, who three years ago got on stage with Neil Young at Hard Rock Calling for his encore of ‘A Day in the Life’, a day before Springsteen played Hyde Park. I Saw Her Standing There and a prolonged Twist and Shout followed before the already poor sound system seemed to drop to a fade (at least that is what it sounded like fairly near the front), before it was clear the sound had been cut. No one told The Boss who spoke impassionedly into a mic which when he realised it wasn’t working found the next mic was the same. For Springsteen to be cut-off like that was a shameful embarrassment for every Londoner.
After the shambolic spectacle of festival organizers coming on stage with silly smiles, shrugs of the shoulder, clipboards in hand and taps of their watch, to tell Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to come off stage as it was 10.40pm on a Saturday night in Central London, The Boss tried to ask for one more. He went back to sing a few lyrics into a turned-off mic, strumming his guitar for those most loyal of his fans that had queued to be there so early they were front, centre. The sound didn’t come back on and the big screens showed a reluctant Springsteen finally following his band off stage, with a polite smile on his face, when anyone else would have wanted to lamp the person who made the decision.
The populist buffoon of a London Mayor, Boris Johnson, ridiculously suggested yesterday he could have been called, as if he has hotline, like a Boris Batphone on occasions when the antiquated licensing laws that his Tory mates (or “chums” as he probably calls them) introduced by Westminster Council need to be extended. Milan and Madrid got over three and a-half hours of The Boss last month, while London was this weekend told it wasn’t allowed to have one last song because there isn’t supposed to be any noise in the West End after 10.30pm and the tubes turn into pumpkins after midnight.
At 62 years of age, it is amazing Springsteen keeps going, but every minute he performs, or is willing to perform, should be appreciated. Hopefully he will return to London again and maybe him and the E Street Band can cover PIL’s Rules and Regulations although perhaps he may want to pick a different Borough to play in next time. The soulless can kill the sound, but we’ll always have Thunder Road.
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With echoes of Glory from Bruce Springsteen to American Cinema, The Substantive columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ tells of his journey travelling through Europe watching sport at the highest level, in a competition increasingly overshadowed by money. It is available to preview for free and download for less than the price of a pint of beer at Hard Rock Calling from Amazon and Smashwords. Further details here.
The Picture at the top of this piece is an exclusive for The Substantive by the illustrator Lilly Allen.